By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The ancient old team bus, with "Jasper Steers" painted on its side, often clattered through the night to make it to the next day's game. "We started out playing all over Louisiana and Texas, then up through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota and into Saskatchewan, Canada," says Risenhoover, now making his home in Granbury.
It would be a rare treat when the team was allowed the "luxury" of spending a night in some ramshackle "colored town" hotel. There, the players often slept on broken-down beds with stale-smelling mattresses that were covered with unwashed sheets. When nature called, a trip to the outhouse was the rule. Still, it beat trying to rest on the side of some dark road and bathing in creeks and rivers, which Risenhoover and his teammates often did.
"But it was never about accommodations or money," Risenhoover, now 66, says. "It was about having the opportunity to play baseball. Everyone on that team loved the game and was thrilled to get the chance to play every day. Some were dreaming of getting a shot at the big leagues, like Jackie Robinson had just a few years earlier." In truth, the only success story was that of teammate Alvin Jackson, a left-handed pitcher who went on to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets, then served for a while as the Boston Red Sox pitching coach.
"But for most, playing for the Steers was just a way of staying in the game for another season or two."
For Risenhoover, that summer when he and his teammates played in big cities and rural whistle stops, when his windups were occasionally made as the chants of "white boy" and "nigger lover" echoed from the stands, it was a learning experience that would remain with him for a lifetime. "I gained a valuable understanding of what it was like to be a minority," he says. Most treasured of his memories of the tour, however, was the manner in which his teammates accepted him. "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that our defense seemed to play just a little bit harder when I was pitching. Maybe it was because they were worried about me being too young to stand up to the kind of hitters I faced. But I like to think they did it because they respected me as a teammate."
Certainly, the youngster pulled his weight. He doesn't remember his won-lost record, but points out that the Steers rarely lost. "We were sort of a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters," he says. It is, however, one of the team's rare defeats that he can still recall. Playing against a Canadian all-star team at the end of the June-to-August tour, he pitched 17 innings before losing 1-0.
By the time he returned home, Risenhoover's arm would never be the same. His own dreams of big league glory ultimately fell short after disappointing spring training tryouts with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Athletics.
For that memorable summer, once all the gate receipts were tallied and operational expenses deducted, the young pitcher pocketed the grand sum of $250.
It would be years, long after his playing days were over and his attention turned to writing and teaching the craft to others, that he recalled his summer with the Jasper Steers in his 1992 novel White Heat. Though it enjoyed good reviews and modest success in the marketplace, it had long been out of print when a friend passed along a well-worn copy to Triple Horse producer Horstmann, himself a one-time semi-pro catcher.
Having just won a 2002 Atlanta Film Festival award for a short film titled Cliché that he'd written, directed and produced, he was anxious to do a feature-length film. "I couldn't get the story of this kid playing with the Jasper Steers out of my mind," he says.
Nor, for that matter, has Risenhoover. "You know, when James Byrd was dragged to death by those guys, I felt terrible. Not only for the horrible thing that happened to him and his family, but for the entire community. Jasper's a good place to live, with a lot of good people. The town and its people didn't deserve to be portrayed the way they were.
"The story of the old Jasper Steers, I hope, will show another side of my hometown."